Michelle Bachelet eased home to victory last night in Chile's general election. The popular former President and leader of 'La Nueva Mayoria' coalition obtained a 62% share of the vote - the best margin obtained by any Presidential candidate since 1990 and a major vote of confidence in her ambitious programme.
As victories go, this was an outcome that was as predictable as it was overwhelming. Still, its significance should not be understated. It was an election that brought to the fore fundamental questions about the future of the country. It was Chile's 'crossroads' election: would they stick with the neo-liberal orthodoxy of the status quo or try a more progressive, centre-left alternative?
They chose the latter.
Bachelet and her rival, the right's Evelyn Matthei, presented voters with a stark choice. Bachelet's promise of a new social democratic settlement in Chile was complemented by pledges of free higher education, tax reform, the creation of a new constitution and changes to the electoral system. Matthei, in contrast, ran as an advocate of the kind of economic policies that her detractors believe have delivered prosperity and inequality to the country in equal measure.
To understand why voters sought out Bachelet's remedies so much more than those of her rival, one doesn't have too look far. Recent years in Chile have seen rising dissatisfaction with numerous aspects of political life. These range from frustration with the country's constitution (an overly complicated relic of the Pinochet era) and the rising cost of living, to the high profile student protests of 2011 that eventually made elected politicians of student leaders like Giorgio Jackson, Camilla Vallejo and Karol Cariola. At the root of all the discontent has been a fundamental lack of faith in the ability of current political set up to redistribute a fair share of the country's wealth to those most in need of help.
Kenneth Bunker, the brains behind the Chilean polling aggregation service Tresquintos and a columnist for La Tercera newspaper, notes that the economic policies proposed by Matthei were at odds with the desires of the Chilean people: 'they didn't want trickle-down benefits, they wanted a piece of the pie. In that sense, the policies of Bachelet were much more in synch with Chileans than Matthei.'
Now Bachelet has finally emerged as victor, the really hard work will begin. She faces major challenges, not least managing her broad coalition and dealing with the public's growing distrust of the political classes in Chile. In addition, she needs to ensure that she keeps the business community on side. Bachelet plans to raise corporation tax from 20% to 25%. In response to these plans, last week the Financial Times reported that Chile's copper industry, which accounts for a fifth of Chilean economic output, had raised concerns about Bachelet's programme and the costs it could heap on the industry at a time when copper prices have dropped 30% from their peak two years ago.
Closely related to the above are questions over how Bachelet will finance her plans with the Chilean economy starting to slow. Her social programme will cost an estimated $15.1billion and affording an such outlay without running a major deficit will be a challenge, particularly if the economy does not pick up.
Some business leaders are concerned, though Bunker doesn't believe it will be a significant issue for the new incumbent going forward: '... some business leaders have pulled away from Bachelet, but many others have endorsed her. Bachelet's election will not have any major negative consequences for businesses in general. It's just typical pre-election manoeuvring.'
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bachelet will simply be managing the expectations raised by her policies and the will of the people to see genuine change brought about speedily. All of her main pledges - the creation of a new constitution, tax reform, and free higher education - will require patience and assiduous handling if they are to be realised. However, if she can succeed in these efforts, she could yet secure an even more profound and enduring victory: proving that a social democratic model can be a viable alternative in a country that has traditionally sought its fixes from the right.